The Spillover Effect: Beware the Explosive Teen

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There’s only one thing harder than living in a home with an adolescent — and that’s being an adolescent. The moodiness, the volatility, the wholesale lack of impulse control, all would be close to clinical conditions if they occurred at another point in life. In adolescence, they’re just part of the behavioral portfolio.

It’s no surprise that in a home that includes such a temperamental free radical there are a lot of fights. To hear the adolescents themselves tell it, it’s all their parents’ and siblings’ fault; they get along just fine with their friends, thank you very much. But a new study by researchers from Seoul National University, UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison suggests that’s not so. Arguments in the home can have a dangerous slosh-over effect into an adolescent’s social circle outside the home — and arguments outside can slosh back in as well.

As I report in my new book The Sibling Effect, fighting is not just an unfortunate part of growing up, it’s an essential part. According to one one Canadian study, very young children engage in one fight with their siblings every 6.3 minutes — or 9.5 episodes of hostile shelling per hour.

All of the warfare serves as a sort of dress rehearsal for the outside world, giving kids a chance to practice conflict resolution and avoidance and the subtle art of knowing when to assert yourself and when it’s best to stand down. Other studies show that kids who learn those skills well in the playroom have less conflictual relationships in school and the world beyond.

For most kids, the frequency of fights in the home declines steadily from toddlerhood to the preteen years, but they surge back up during adolescence, especially — but hardly exclusively — when the fights are with parents. To study the impact of all that, the investigators recruited a sample group  of 578 ninth-graders from three public high schools in the Los Angeles area. All of the teens filled out a conflict diary once a day for 14 days, describing their emotional cycle throughout the preceding 24 hours and whether they had had any fights with family members or friends.

The researchers’ findings, which were published in the September-October edition of the journal Child Development, showed that fights or other conflicts with peers raised the risk of similar outbreaks of hostility in the home for at least a full day after. Conflicts inside the home had an even more persistent spillover effect, increasing the odds of fights with friends for an average of two full days. The effect was evident in both genders, though for girls it was more pronounced than it was for boys. Regardless of the sex of the teen, the phenomenon may also have a spiraling effect, with a fight in the living room leading to a fight in the schoolyard, which leads to another fight in the home and so on.

“The bottom line,” says UCLA psychologist Andrew Fuligni, who participated in the study, “is that adolescents’ interactions in the home and with peers shape each other on a daily basis.”

Solutions to the problem are limited. Making a conscious effort to practice good conflict resolution when children are very young can help. Parents as well as siblings can also remain conscious of staying as level-headed as possible, not responding to the adolescent’s volatility in kind. The storms of the early teen years do pass — though never soon enough for most families’ tastes.

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